Cover Story

The Agony & Ecstasy of Alicia Keys

With the release of ''As I Am,'' her third and riskiest CD yet, the very private singer-songwriter opens up about hitting rock bottom, taking control of her career -- and getting a life

Alicia Keys | ALICIA KEYS Prior to the personal rebirth resulting in As I Am , ''I would look in the mirror and I didn't know who that…
Image credit: PHOTOGRAPH BY JAMES WHITE
ALICIA KEYS Prior to the personal rebirth resulting in As I Am, ''I would look in the mirror and I didn't know who that person was. I didn't like my eyes; I didn't like what they said''

Alicia Keys is glowing. Her dressing room at the Palms Casino's theater in Las Vegas is crowded with well-wishers. The singer-songwriter just performed her new single ''No One'' for the first time ever at MTV's Video Music Awards — and nailed it. There are hugs and high fives all around. Keys' longtime boyfriend and co-producer, Kerry ''Krucial'' Brothers, marvels that she was able to stay cool while Kid Rock and Tommy Lee almost came to blows near the foot of the stage. Keys sends the love right back at him: ''That was all you!'' she gushes. ''I could see you on the side of the stage like, 'Don't stop!' Thank you for that! You kept me going.''

Tonight, Sept. 9, was supposed to celebrate Britney Spears' much-anticipated comeback. You know how that went. Next door, in Spears' dressing room, the bikini-clad star's handlers spill out into the corridor, looking anxious. In an unlikely coup, Keys — a last-minute fill-in invited to sing after Amy Winehouse called in sick — has stolen the show with old-fashioned commodities like talent, passion, and class.

''I didn't even see Kid Rock and Tommy Lee get into a fight because I was so into Alicia's performance,'' says R&B singer-songwriter Ne-Yo, seated front and center. ''She killed it.'' Later, at the celeb-mobbed bistro Tao, Mark Ronson, T.I., and Nelly all stop by Keys' table to shower her with flattery and pose for pictures with her. ''I love everyone's response to the music,'' she says. ''I'm inspired. I'm in a good place.''

That would've been tough for Keys to say a year ago. Though few people knew it at the time, the then 25-year-old was in the midst of a breakdown — and breakthrough — that came to shape much of her third CD, As I Am. So while she naturally wanted to debut ''No One'' from the new album at the VMAs, she deliberately closed her set with a gospel-tinged rendition of George Michael's ''Freedom 90.'' ''It represents a lot of this year for me,'' she says. ''Finding myself as a woman, finding my strength and the life I want to live, and the freedom I want in myself.''

As I Am marks the debut of Keys' raw and intense new vocal style. ''This CD was so severely personal, it changed my voice,'' she says. ''There's so much more that I needed to say.'' The album's second single, ''Like You'll Never See Me Again'' — inspired partly by a family member's passing, partly by Prince's ''Purple Rain'' — finds Keys positively trembling as she sings, ''Every time you hold me, hold me like this is the last time/Every time you kiss me, kiss me like you'll never see me again.''

How had selling 11.5 million CDs, winning nine Grammys, and collaborating with everyone from Eve and Usher to Ray Charles and Bono managed to bring Keys down? Keys herself wasn't sure — but she knew she had to find out. ''I discovered a lot about myself I didn't like,'' she says. ''I would look in the mirror and I didn't know who that person was. I didn't like my eyes; I didn't like what they said. I couldn't sleep. I was uncomfortable all the time, and irritated and frustrated.''

NEXT PAGE: ''Ever since I was little, I always felt like if people knew about me, they'd be able to use it against me.''

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